I was in the City of London at the weekend teaching a beginner’s photography workshop. Just as we got to the main road, a posse of bikers turned up, parked their large shiny motorbikes, got off, and mounted a row of Boris’s bicycles. (For non-UK readers, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, set up a scheme that enables anyone to pick up and borrow a bicycle for a small fee from the many banks of them distributed all over London)
We were on the other side of the road and a central railing prevented us from crossing for some way each side, so I climbed up onto a large block of stone and managed to get this photo.
I have no idea what they were doing – they were in high good spirits, waving at traffic going by, cars were honking their horns at them, and passing photographers were risking their lives in the road taking pictures. It looked like a publicity stunt, but there didn’t seem to be any publicity going on. Whatever it was, it added a bit of fun to our day.
Danny Gregory, in his book The Creative Licence, says that if you want know how successful you are creatively, don’t look at how much money you earn, or what people say about your work. Instead, ask yourself these four questions:
Did you express yourself?
Did you have fun?
Did you learn something?
Did you see?
He’s talking about drawing, but it applies equally well to photography. Sometimes we forget that art is not just about the finished product – in fact, you’re still engaged in making art even if it all goes wrong and there is no finished product. While it’s good to see a result for your efforts, the process of doing it is at least equally important – it’s the act of creation that counts. If we only engaged in art in order to produce a product, then art would turn into a job. And while it might be a very enjoyable job, it probably wouldn’t satisfy that thing in you that got you interested in the first place.
Did you express yourself?
Does your photograph express what you felt when you took it? Does it bring out similar emotions in the viewer as it did in you when you took it? Does it show the scene/event in the way that you saw it? Does it say what you want it to say? If it does, then reward yourself with chocolate – you’ve done well.
The photograph at the top is far from perfect, but for me it expresses the feeling I wanted to capture of walking home through town on a wet winter’s night.
We went kite flying, had a lot of fun, and I got this!
Did you have fun?
This is the question that most often gets neglected. Remind yourself why you took up photography – I’ll bet it was because you enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun. The trouble is, once you get serious about doing something the fun often starts leaking out of it. It doesn’t have to, but we get all adult about it and start beating ourselves up when it doesn’t work out the way we’d hoped. Watch a young child in the act of creating – they don’t worry about the end product, they just have fun doing it. And if a child didn’t have fun painting or drawing or making something out of matchsticks, then s/he wouldn’t do it. Remember that; fun is important
And yes, I know there are times when it’s not fun but you have to persevere anyway because you’re not a child anymore and the end result is worth the angst. Nobody’s saying it’s going to be fun all the time – just make sure it’s fun at least some of the time. OK?
Did you learn something?
If you didn’t manage to express yourself effectively, and you didn’t even have fun doing it, then maybe at least you learned something. Maybe you made what looked like a mistake but actually resulted in a cool new effect. Maybe you just made a lot of mistakes – but now you know what not to do next time, don’t you? Don’t be too quick to delete your mistakes either; I’ve had bad shooting days where I haven’t liked anything I’ve taken, but when I’ve revisited later I can see that there are some fine shots there that I didn’t notice because of my negative mood.
Before I took up photography, I never would have looked closely enough to notice the reflection in this orb.
Did you see?
Did you begin to see things in a new way? Photography is a fantastic pursuit for getting you to look at things differently and to see interesting things where once you thought it was all terribly boring. If you saw something in a different way, even if you didn’t manage to capture it in your camera, then you’ve gained something very valuable from the experience. If all that photography ever did for you was to make you really see the world, it would be worth it for that alone.
Sometimes it happens that we can say a big ‘yes’ to all of these questions: those are the best of days. Sometimes we can only say ‘yes’ to two or three of them – that’s good too. Even if we only say ‘yes’ to one of them, we can count that as a success. So stop criticising the photographs you end up with, and start asking yourself these questions instead – they’re a better measure of true success.
Can you think of any other questions it would be good to ask yourself?
With the unseasonably hot weather we’ve had this year all the spring flowers and blossom seem to have come out at once and I feel as if I’m being pulled in all directions trying not to miss any of it. The bluebells were out a good couple of weeks earlier than usual and although yet again I’d left it a bit late (I always seem to be scrambling at the last moment), I wasn’t going to give in without trying.
I know of a wood that’s carpeted with bluebells – a lovely place – and headed there last Sunday. The bluebells were still blue, but that’s about all you could say for them; if you looked closely they were quite wizened and another day or two of warm weather and they’d be bluebells no more. So my first thought was to avoid any close-ups that would reveal that they were on the way out and try to capture the haze of blue that was still there. (The creative photographer always works with what they’ve got!)
I took a few shots this way and thought I had one or two that worked but nothing exciting. Then I had another idea: I thought I’d play around with some abstract shots. By setting a slow shutter speed and moving the camera I aimed to get a soft, painterly effect. It’s not a new idea, but I’ve only tried it once before and I like the way it looks. I rather like the green haze that’s appeared in the shot below, and the way it almost seems like a double exposure. But you’ll notice it doesn’t have any bluebells in it!
While the shot above had something about it, the next shot wasn’t nearly so successful (although it does contain bluebells). I’d be the first to admit that it just looks too blurred to work properly – it makes my eyes go very peculiar just looking at it and is a good example of Getting it Badly Wrong. It shows that you need something for your eye to fix and focus on even where the overall effect is very soft. The colours are nice, though.
How NOT to do it!
Because I liked the way the colours had come out in this (if nothing else), I had another idea.
Sometimes when you finally see your photos on the computer screen you get a real thrill about how well they’ve turned out; this wasn’t one of those times. Although the straight bluebell shots were OK at first glance, they showed a little bit of camera shake when viewed at full size. This was probably caused by my being slightly out of breath when I took them (there was a steep climb up a hill involved) and then not using a tripod.
There are two schools of thought here. The first says that trying to rescue a bad picture is very definitely not how you’re supposed to do things. The serious photographer would delete the shots and try again next year. It’s absolutely the right attitude if you’re trying to sell your shots or use them commercially and I’d be the first to agree. But the other point of view says, if you’re not going to be asking for money for them, why not have some fun playing with them and see what you can salvage out of the whole sorry mess? So that’s where I decided to go.
I took one of the straight shots and applied the Orton technique to it. For those who haven’t heard of this, it’s a process where you sandwich together a sharp version and a blurred version of the same image, and it gives a soft effect that also brings out the colours. Not only would it cover up the camera shake issue, it would disguise the less-than-juicy nature of the bluebells and make them look like the blue cloud they ought to resemble. The result is at the top of this post and I think it works pretty well.
To let you decide for yourself, I’ve put the straight version and the Ortonised version together for comparison. You can see in the straight version on the left that the bluebells are looking a bit thin, and the one on the right makes them look a lot richer and thicker on the ground.
In many ways this was a bad day’s shooting. But I learned from it – I tried out a new camera technique and I had some fun with post-processing. And next year I won’t leave it so late and I’ll catch my breath again before I start shooting.
Most cameras shoot in rectangles – a common one is 3:2, which means your photo (whatever its actual dimensions) will measure three units across by two units high. For example, your prints will be 6 inches by 4 inches, or 9 inches by 6 inches or any size that has the 3:2 ratio. The trouble with this is that we can get locked into this one way of composing and stagnate there. Shooting to a different ratio forces you to compose your images differently and helps stretch your ‘seeing’ muscles.
There are a lot of different aspect ratio options you can go for, but for the moment I want to suggest that you start by shooting square. Why square? Well, it’s not something we come across that often and therefore it stands out – it’s a little unusual and we’re not used to seeing potential pictures in that shape. Most photos that you see in newspapers, magazines, adverts, and so on are rectangular, although one obvious exception to this is CD covers.
The square has some interesting properties. It’s a very stable shape, and it takes away the usual dilemma of choosing between portrait and landscape format – a square is a square, whichever way up you put it. Some subjects very obviously suit this format – such as flowers – and while placing your subject bang in the centre is usually a no-no, with square format it often works well.
At the same time, it can work equally well to have your subject off to the side.
You can still use the Rule of Thirds for effective composition.
Sometimes the advantage of a square is that it allows you to leave out the ‘extra’ bits that would spoil your composition. I cropped the next photo for this reason – the square contained exactly what I wanted to capture and no more.
Diagonal lines often work well within the square and set up a pleasant tension between the stability of the square and the movement and dynamism of the diagonal.
Symmetry also works well, as the square shape itself is symmetrical and so sets up a kind of ‘echo’ of the composition.
How to set your camera up to shoot square
If you’re very lucky, your camera might just have an option that lets you do this. I’ve only ever seen this in compact cameras, but if you check your manual (under aspect ratio) you can find out if yours does it, and if it does then you’re off and away.
Traditionally, square format photography came from medium format cameras using 120mm film made by manufacturers like Hasselblad and Rolleiflex. These are very expensive and beyond the price range of most enthusiasts. But….if you like shooting in film, and enjoy the toy camera effect, then Holgas, Lomos, and Dianas all use 120mm, produce square prints and are very affordable. Some camera phone apps are in square format too, and prints from Polaroid cameras are, of course, square-shaped.
Most cameras don’t have a square format option, however, so let’s assume your camera doesn’t either. You have two choices. The first is that you just have to imagine you’ve got a square shape in your viewfinder instead of what’s actually there. This is a bit difficult at first, but can be done with practice. If you do find it difficult to ‘see’ in squares, then a good tip is to cut a square in a piece of black card. Hold it in front of you, look through it, and move it around till you see a good composition.
The second option is much easier: if you have Live View, put some tape on your screen so that the only bit you see is square shaped. Then you just compose your picture using the part of the screen you can see. Later on, of course, when you upload it to your computer, you’ll have to crop it square. (And if you have a DSLR and don’t like composing using Live View, just use it to identify possible compositions and then take your picture using the viewfinder as normal).
In the picture below I’ve used light-coloured masking tape so you can see clearly what I’ve done, but black tape or a colour that blends with your camera is a lot less distracting. If you’ve used light-coloured tape and it bothers you that you can see through it a little, you can get round this by placing a piece of dark card behind the tape (thanks to Kat for this tip).
Once you’ve taken your photo, you’ll have to crop it square. If you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, set the cropping tool to No Restriction, and hold down the Shift key as you use the mouse to crop. This will keep your crop beautifully square-shaped. Alternatively, if you know what size you want your final print to be, then you can just enter the dimensions and resolution in the cropping toolbar.
In my recent post on the Turner Centre you can see one example of how cropping to a square can change the whole way a photo looks.
Printing square photos can cause some problems for you if you have your photos commercially printed rather than print them yourself. In the UK, Photobox offer a couple of sizes of square crops: 5 x 5 and 8 x 8. This is a bit limiting and if these sizes don’t suit you, then DS Colour Labs offer a better variety of sizes although their prints are a bit more expensive. If you’re in the US try Mpix, who offer a wide range of square print sizes. And of course you could just get them printed out on a larger size print and then cut off the excess.
Finding square frames shouldn’t pose too many problems as they’re fashionable at the moment. For anyone living in the UK and the rest of Europe, Ikea always have a good selection.
For lots of ideas about using a square shape for your photography, try the Flickr group B Square, or have a look here.
Michael Kenna takes beautiful, minimalist landscapes using square format.
Jaqueline Walters, on Flickr, has some great black and white and Holga square images.
Kawauchi Rinko is known for her rather dreamy, square format images; the link will take you to a selection of her images and an interview, but do a Google Image search to see more.
For an interesting, if slightly awkward to grasp, method of composing with square images, see Diagonal Method.
Kat Sloma also has an interesting post on taking square format photos that goes into lots of detail about how best to compose for this shape.
I came across the work of photographer Nina Katchadourian a while ago, and was really taken by two of her projects: in the first, she mended spider’s webs with red thread and the in the second, she patched cracks in mushrooms with bicycle repair kits.
The spiders would often react to the repair by pulling out the red threads, leaving a pile of them on the ground below. You can imagine them being disgusted at the standard of workmanship and outraged at the use of red thread!
There’s something very playful and whimsical about this that I find enchanting, but it does pose some more serious questions about our interactions with nature. Should we intervene? Katchadourian says that she often destroyed the web further in her efforts to do the repair. Sometimes we just blunder in and make things worse.
It reminds me of the story of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon and ‘helped’ it by pulling the cocoon apart. What he didn’t realise was that the struggle to emerge was designed to force fluid from the butterfly’s body into its wings and that, without this struggle, the butterfly’s wings would never form enough to fly.
Putting all that aside, I do think there’s a wonderful innocence in the notion of repairing webs and mushrooms that takes us back in time to childhood when magic was around every corner and everything was possible. It’s refreshing to come across work that just has to make you smile.
Photo challenge: what could you do to ‘repair’ nature and then photograph it?
I never intended to take up photography at all. I came to it via an Access to Art & Design course that I took at my local college, because what I really wanted to do (I thought!) was paint and draw.
One of the first exercises on the course was to choose a partner and then each of us had to draw the other person in our sketchbook. My drawing was the one you see on the left and if it hadn’t already been in my sketchbook, it would have found itself in the bin in short order. It’s terrible! My only consolation was that the drawing Kevin – my victim – did of me was probably even worse.
But…..it was only about two weeks later that I produced the self-portrait on the right. It doesn’t look like me, but it does look like a real face, and it’s amazing what an improvement drawing all day for a couple of days a week has made. In Kevin’s portrait there’s no shading, no real observation of what his face actually looked like – I didn’t draw what my eyes were seeing, I drew what I thought was there.
Naming stops us seeing
Frederick Franck, in his book The Zen of Seeing, says that the minute we label something we stop seeing it properly. So I looked at Kevin and saw two eyes, a nose, a mouth, some hair, etc. You can see I made some attempt to observe the shape of his face and that’s probably because you can’t pin a label on that so easily. In contrast, when I did the self-portrait I was closely observing things like the folds round my eyes, the shape of my mouth, the way my hair curled, and so on. I didn’t think ‘this is an eye’ while drawing my eye, I simply observed the shapes and the tones that were there without naming them. And instead of ending up with Kevin’s flat, white face, I’ve seen where the shadows and highlights lie, drawn them in, and subsequently my face has volume and shape.
So what does this have to do with photography?
To be a good photographer you have to learn to look at the world differently, and learning to draw is a very good way of changing how you look at things. You begin to notice patterns of light and shade, interesting little shapes, and the lines and curves that make up your subject. Even something boring becomes interesting when you try to draw it.
For instance, maybe you think the view from your window is really dull. And if you look at it and just see houses, cars, washing lines, and so on, it will be. If you stop seeing it in terms of these things and start noticing the fabulously clashing colours of the clothes on the washing line, or the soft, golden light hitting just one window of the house opposite, or the curved lines that form the shapes of the cars, or how no two leaves on the tree in your garden are exactly the same shape, then a whole new world will open up to you. Nothing will ever look dull and boring again once you learn how to really look at it, and you’ll be able to find a picture anywhere.
You don’t need to be good at drawing for this to work, although you will become good at it naturally when you start really ‘seeing’ the world. It’s not the end result – the drawing – that’s important; it’s the process you go through to arrive at it. It trains you to look carefully and closely at the world around you. And if you do this then you can’t help but become a better photographer.
I hope I might have convinced you to give it a go. Apart from anything else, it’s a lot of fun.
Books to help you learn to draw
I tend to avoid the kind of learn-to-draw book that teaches in a very technical way. I’m not a very technical person and I find it off-putting and boring. I like the kind that gets you enthused and inspired, or helps you use a more right-brained approach to drawing. Here are some I can totally recommend:
This is a classic, and I never thought I could draw at all until I tried the exercises in this book. I was astounded at the difference these made in just one day of drawing. If you only buy one book, make it this one.
This is a charming – and free – downloadable ebook, written by a man who found drawing helped him deal with the death of his mother and a chronic illness.
There are loads more books out there but I’m not going to overload you. I hope you’ll think about picking up a pencil and doing some drawing – I guarantee it will change the way you see things forever.
A friend and I went to the new Turner Centre in Margate last week. From the outside the building is veering towards the ugly – rather blank, cube-like shapes with one edge elongated into a pointed roof – but inside is much better. What immediately grabs your eye is the huge window overlooking the sea. Everyone is drawn to it and I spent some time photographing people as they looked out. The image above is taken on the second floor and I’m really happy with the way I’ve caught this elderly couple standing just to the side of the open circle.
In the picture below, I liked the huge wall of mirror that extends to each side of the window and the way it distorts everything. The woman in the wheelchair was an added bonus that adds a sense of scale.
I enjoyed most of the exhibits and I particularly liked the kinetic sculpture with lights, although I don’t have a picture of that. I also liked the work shown below; it reminds me of a flock of birds wheeling through the sky. What look like shadows falling beneath each point are actually marks drawn on the wall in pencil.
What’s really great is that, for the moment at least, they’re allowing you to take photos inside the centre. It’s a refreshing change from the usual prohibitions. A friend told me he once tried to photograph the artist’s statement that was fixed on the wall next to the work it referred to and was stopped by a security guard. When he asked if he could copy it by writing down what was said instead, the guard said yes, that would be fine! I sometimes think the world is crazy.
Most of my shots were of the window and people:
When I posted this one on Flickr, someone suggested that it could be cropped to a square shape to emphasise the window circle, and that the figures would be better turned into silhouettes. Although I feel it loses the sense of space I was aiming to capture, I think it really works like this (and also loses the person who’s crept in on the right side – I didn’t notice them till after I’d edited the picture). It’s always interesting to see what variations you can get out of one image by cropping it in different ways.
When I went over to look out of the window myself, my eye was caught by a row of brightly coloured flags on the harbour. I just had to walk down there afterwards and take a picture. I do love these colours; they’re so cheerful.
Before we left, we had some fun browsing in the gift shop. We decided to leave behind the ‘I’d rather be in Margate’ mugs but my friend did buy a rather stylish giant egg-timer filled with lime green sand.
It’s spring, and the world is bursting with colour. One very nice, and very simple, photo project is to choose a colour and then go out and photograph it wherever you see it. If you want to make it a bit more challenging, then get a friend or family member to choose a colour for you. Or, you could write some colour names on pieces of paper, put them in a container, and pull one out.
Collected by LethaColleen; images by, left to right top to bottom: 1) mactastic , 2) Majlee, 3) Jen Bekman, 4) BooDilly's, 5) Majlee, 6) Mervyn Hector
You can do this just as well using neutral colours.
Collected by LethaColleen; images by, top to bottom, left to right: 1) Camilla Engman, 2) Bird in the Hand, 3) Lucky † 13, 4) Blind Spot Jewellery, 5) Bergman's Bear, 6) bldgblog
A variation is to shoot a rainbow of colours. There are seven colours in the rainbow so you could do a square seven rows wide by seven rows high. Just in case you’ve forgotten, the colours are: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. And if you want to get really adventurous, you could try something like this:
I’ve no idea how they did this, but if you want a much simpler mosaic-maker, try here:
At Big Huge Labs you can choose a layout, the number of columns and rows you want, the background colour and border colour, as well as being able to import your photos from Flickr or upload them from your own computer. You have to sign up, but it’s free.
This is a really easy, fun and effective project – even quite ordinary photos can look really good when you put a collection of one colour together and once you start looking for a particular colour you’ll be amazed at how often you see it and where it turns up.